The Donor Family Letter

Today, when my phone rang and when I saw the phone number come up, a little gulp of fear surged through me. It was Hana’s Nurse Practitioner and I was sure she was calling with biopsy results except that it seemed way to early, at 10am, to already have results. Nancy sounded cheerful and immediately said she had more good news. Hana’s biopsy result was a 1a, which is essentially no rejection. I felt incredibly relieved and said “whew!” Out loud. Her next biopsy is not until early May. We will begin to taper her steroids. We also discussed flu precautions, which has me slightly terrified this year. They had no additional precautions than the ones I’ve already implemented. Anyhow, we have reason to celebrate such good biopsy results!

On to the big news that Nancy gave me yesterday. After discussing Hana’s biopsy yesterday Nancy’s said she had more good news and then she said, “You have a letter from the donor family.” And then she handed me a plain white envelope, very thin, which appeared to have one sheet of a typed letter inside. I immediately started crying. I took the letter feeling like it was the most precious paper I had ever held in my hands.

I felt so many things at once that I can’t even really identify them all. They were just very very big emotions. Not since we received the call that there was a heart for Hana have I felt like this. I felt intense gratitude, relief, excitement. I felt the intensity of loss, grief, suffering. I even felt love and hope and desire. Of course, I did not open the letter until Paul was home. I cried on and off throughout the rest of the day. I waited. This is one reason why I did not mention this yesterday – I still had not opened the letter.

The letter was short and heartfelt. The donor was a boy, a little younger than Hana, who died unexpectedly. He had a contagious smile and was full of life – running, jumping, chasing. He was an only child. The parents said they think every day about the recipients who received his gifts and would love to hear how they are doing. We have decided that we are not going to post any identifying details that were shared by the donor family. As much as we love and appreciate all of the readers of this blog we want to respect the privacy and anonymity of the donor family.

It has been very emotional and we are still processing it all. I am incredibly grateful that the donor family reached out first. As much as I have wanted them to know our gratitude for their choice, it just never felt like it was the right time. Not just yet. Now, it feels like the right time! In a few days, after a bit more processing, Paul and I will write a reply. I hope we can somehow find that words that might begin to express how we feel. I hope we can perhaps offer some solace knowing that their son’s heart beats within Hana and explain how much she loves life. I hope we can continue to be the best stewards of this most incredible and amazing gift for Hana.

Thank you donor family. You are in our hearts every night.

With Love,

Kathleen

A Sweet Loss

Hana continues to do really well. We are amazed and incredibly grateful everyday. She has a new sign to add to her vocabulary almost every day. She is getting sturdier and faster on her feet. She is getting better at independent play. Her drinking of breast milk has plateaued and so I have cut down on pumping once again, since there is no reason to be freezing more breast milk. We have enough to get Hana through sickness, if she were to get sick again like she was last October.

I ask myself how much longer I will pump and there seems to be much debate in this country on how long it is appropriate for kids to get breast milk. The World Health Organization says two years but I don’t know about six more months of exclusive pumping. But, until Hana will reliably drink something else, I guess I’ll keep pumping. She is starting to get interested in cow milk.

This week Hana will get IVIG therapy again. Let’s please hope it works! We heard more about the other options to lower her antibodies and they aren’t desirable. They involve plasmapheresis and medications used to treat cancer (although in a much smaller dose). Hana would have to go down to the pediatric ICU during treatment. She would have to get a central line.

Tonight, though, what is heavy on our minds and hearts is the news of another child, sweet Charlotte, who passed away on Sunday. We met her parents when Hana was in the CVICU. Charlotte was our next door neighbor here on 3 West. She was her parents only child and she was a couple months older than Hana. She was a sweet baby girl. I don’t know what else to say, but my heart is aching.

Thank you to everyone for all your support.

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104 days in the hospital, 85 days post-Berlin Heart, 77 days on the transplant list.

The Balance Of Fluid

Today Hana was fast asleep with a heart rate in the 160s – that’s way too fast. Her temperature has been normal, thank goodness. She is very sleepy even at 10:30 am. So, the doctors scratch their heads and puzzle over this latest change. The heart failure/transplant doctors are worried that fluid is backing up where it shouldn’t and the right chambers of her heart are working too hard or are in failure. The CVICU doctors wonder if she is too dehydrated, except that her fluid output (they measure exactly how much fluid she gets compared to how much they can measure that comes out – they weigh her diapers, etc.) does not suggest dehydration. Her BUN and creatinine levels (from blood work) do not suggest she is overly dehydrated.

The attending physician looks at Hana and he thinks she looks very dehydrated. Her eyes are sunken, her lips and hands and feet are very dry. He said that BUN and creatinine are not reliable tests for children. He also says that her sodium has been on the low side for a while and that can wipe her out. He orders sodium replacement and some IV saline. The heart failure Doctor requests that they use her Power PICC to check Hana’s CVPs (central venous pressure) and he talks about doing an echocardiogram to look at the right side of her heart. By the way, Hana’s CT scan came back with no problems so that is a huge sigh of relief!

After the IV saline, Hana’s heart rate crept down, her CVP which was at 1 or 0 and that came up to 5 or 6 and Hana woke up and wanted to play! The heart failure Doctor was still skeptical but he did put off doing the echocardiogram. Hana should get one soon regardless. So despite feeling very stressed for a while this morning, it turned out to be a good day. Hana even got another chest tube out. 

We spent some time in her room opening some packages and decorating while playing some Christmas music. I haven’t heard any Christmas music this season before today!

   
   

Out Of The OR

Hana is back in her room in the CVICU. The doctors and nurses are still settling her in but we did go into her room for a little while. It’s a little hard to see the thumping of her chest, which looks mechanical. For me that feels the hardest – not the three chest tubes and this pump holding her blood that comes out of her chest. Hana is doing well.

The surgeon talked to us after the surgery. He said things went well. Her heart has already reduced in size. They tried to reinflate her left lung but they were not able to. This was not really surprising since her left lung has been collapsed for so long. 

While Hana was in surgery they put in a larger (diameter) breathing tube. They put in a central line in her neck and another arterial line in the groin area. They pulled her NG tube. Hana is on a lot of medications they added epinephrine, nipride, and a few others, she is getting Nitric oxide and a blood transfusion. Her blood pressure is a little high. It will take some tinkering to get everything just right. The biggest concern is to just watch the right side of the heart – to make sure it doesn’t get overworked and to watch her bleeding.

I am relieved the surgery is over. I wish there were less concerns right now because I am exhausted and would love to sleep. Actually they said tonight would be a good night to get sleep, while Hana is still very sedated. They always say stuff like that. I didn’t listen much to that advice the last time, in February, I just thought they were crazy and just didn’t understand what it was like to go through something like this. And probably they don’t know, but they have witnessed a lot of people go through it. They were right. As Hana’s heart failure/transplant cardiologist said to me Friday, “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

When I went in next to Hana, I put my hand on her head and stood in awe. I told her she was amazing. It is amazing to me how much she has gone through, I don’t even know how to put it into words. 

The White Food Experiment

Tuesday we took Hana to Stanford for an appointment. I remember when she was still in the CVICU at Stanford and was starting to stabilize and we started hearing about what might happen next. One of the things they mentioned was that some kids stay until in the hospital until they get a heart transplant, they may have to go on ECMO or a Berlin heart. But then there are some kids that get “well enough” to go home on oral medications and some of those kids even do well for years before they need a heart transplant. There are some of those kids that even end up improving. They couldn’t tell us which scenario would be Hana because they don’t yet understand why some kids do well or even improve.

So far, Hana is one of the kids doing well on oral medications. Her echocardiagram, although not worse, is still very severe. On the outside she looks like a normal baby. She is thriving and growing and developing. The term they used was “exceptional compensation” – her heart is very, very sick looking but she appears to be doing very well. There was a pediatric cardiology fellow that joined Hana’s attending doctor for the exam. He, especially, seemed to be very impressed to look at her (after having just reviewed her latest echo).

I feel very fortunate. It’s a reminder on how fortunate we have been.

At Stanford talked a lot about weaning her from the tube and the risk that they are willing or not willing to take with the wean. She is doing well, perhaps because everything is managed so carefully right now. Once the tube is out that becomes harder. They would like her to weigh 10kg before we do anything drastic like pull the tube out and see if her hunger will make her eat. She weighed in at 8.45 kg, so she is still gaining about 7 grams a day. They decided to drop her mid-day Lasix dose because her BUN was so high, but we’ll see how she does and if she starts to retain fluid. We don’t have to take her back to Stanford for three months!

I got the impression that I need to be more patient (when it comes to her feeding progress).

On a daily basis, moment to moment, some things are still a lot of work – mostly on my mind in this category is feeding. Today I made specially prepared baby food in forms and textures that I thought would be more conducive to eating. I took them to our feeding specialist appointment, which we haven’t been going to because the therapist was on vacation. Hana didn’t want to eat the split peas. We mixed them with yogurt and then she ate some, but just a little, maybe a teaspoon. Then we tried some string cheese. Hana ate almost half a stick! It was very encouraging. The final conclusion was that she likes and trusts white food.

I really had my doubts at first – could a baby really prefer foods that are white? But the feeding specialist assured me that it was not crazy to think she only likes white foods. I guess it makes sense, breast milk is white. Yogurt is white. Mashed potatoes are white. All the foods that we have the most luck with are white. So we wrote down a list of white foods. Over the next week I am going to introduce as many white foods as possible to see if that makes a difference. So far we have yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, vanilla pudding, chicken breast, cauliflower, white asparagus, tofu, rice and white beans.

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New Bloodwork Results

This past week has been about the same. Hana had a cold with a runny nose and she really didn’t want to drink from her Milk Bear. Today she only drank two ounces although she’s been averaging 6-8 ounces. She was definitely more cranky and then I worry it is her heart. Maybe “worry” is the wrong word, perhaps its more like I’m on high alert.

One day last week, she vomited in the middle of the night and her NG tube came out. We decided to leave it out rather than place it again at one o’clock in the morning. The next morning we wanted to give her as much time free of the tube, so Paul went to work and I thought for sure I would be able to find someone to help hold Hana while I put the tube in. Well, it was getting late and I needed to give her medications (via the tube) before too much more time passed. I wasn’t able to find anyone around to help hold Hana. I was getting desperate so, of course, I called my mom.

My mom was able to instruct me on how I could hold Hana so that I could put her NG tube back in by myself. If you have not witnessed NG tube placement on a baby, I can tell you that it is very unpleasant. Hana is squirming, arms flailing, head going from side to side. She is screaming, sputtering, crying, choking and gagging. It’s awful and as the mom or the parent, it feels even worse. I had to take a few moments to take some deep breaths and psych myself up. I decided that if I couldn’t get the tube in, I was going to walk down to Kaiser and ask someone there to help me.

I swaddled Hana’s arms by her sides and then sat in an armless chair with her on my lap. I put one of my legs over hers and then had all the things I needed laid out on her high chair tray. It took a couple of attempts but I got the NG tube in and I managed a pretty nice tape job too. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of myself. It was very empowering. I had thoughts of letting her go tube free more often, for several hours a day because now I could just put the tube back in myself. I don’t know if I want to subject her to that much trauma every day. I wish I knew which was worse – having the tube in constantly or getting a break from the tube but having to endure getting it put back in more often.

Last Friday we had to get bloodwork for our upcoming appointment at Stanford on Tuesday. From what I can tell, the majority of her tests were basically “normal” or at least the same. One test – BUN (blood urea nitrogen) was twice as high as the upper range of normal at 34. I know they talked about maybe having her level be close to 30, but then last time, when it was 15, they seemed satisfied. BUN measure dehydration. They want to keep her dry because it is less load on the heart.

The other test that was different was her BNP which is B type natriuretic protein. I’ve talked about this before. It is basically a substance that is secreted by the ventricles when the heart is in failure. It was going up and up and up since Hana was discharged from Stanford. At the highest it was 1055. Now is is at 589. I think that is great, but we’ll see what the cardiology team at Stanford says. I’m still happy that it is going down instead of up! (By the way, normal levels would be below 100).

Now we just need to get her eating! I’ve been researching a tube weaning approach developed in Austria called NoTube. They have a netcoaching program where they talk with you via web conferencing every day for an hour or so for three weeks. Apparently they have a high success rate. It does cost $4,000! What really turns me off is that they seem like really pushy sales people so I have a level of mistrust. Maybe it is just a cultural thing. I don’t know.

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Her Happiness Breaks My Heart

Hana had a bit of a fussy night and in the morning I found some damp vomit on her bed and pillow. It always hurts my heart a little bit to think that she vomited at night an no one came to comfort her. But maybe she really is ok with it and its just me. This is the third time its happened.

About twenty minutes after she had all her morning meds, all were given a little on the early side, I very quickly pulled out her NG tube. She cried a tiny bit. Then I took her to see Paul and drink her morning milk. Unfortunately, it seems that the first milk of the day comes right back up. At least it is an easy vomit, not like her really bad retching vomit episodes. Unfortunately, she vomited on our bed, which is not protected for baby vomit. She recovered quickly and was back to drinking milk.

All in all, Hana drank 14 ounces of straight breast milk today! That is three more ounces than yesterday! Tomorrow, I will start fortifying it just a little to add calories and hopefully get her used to the taste. We didn’t have a whole lot of luck giving her Lasix, which is the only medication in the middle of the day that really needs to be given at a certain time. I tried letting her taste the Lasix from the syringe and dropping a little bit in her mouth but she was gagging before the syringe even hit her lips! Then she vomited a mouthful and I decided to try another approach. We put the Lasix in some of her milk and she very slowly drank almost all of it. I don’t even know if you can give meds that way, but I figured trying it once wouldn’t be terrible.

The most amazing thing about the day was how happy Hana was most of the day. All babies have fussy periods of the day or a few moments of unhappiness when they don’t like something and Hana certainly had those. But she was noticeably a much happier baby all around. She laughed and smiled more. She was more active and playful. She babbled more. I really think she was so much happier not having the NG tube and not being hooked to the feeding pump. It breaks my heart to think that she could be this happy every day if only she didn’t have that tube. If only…

It broke my heart to have to put the tube back in before bedtime. It is traumatic every time you have to put the tube back in – she cries and screams and gags and almost vomits and squirms. Its terrible. I imagine for nurses that have to do it for babies its not too fun, but to have to do it to your own baby really sucks. On top of all that, it almost felt like I was forcing her back into this unhappy state. I hate it. Afterward, I cried a little.

But, we move on. She saw the feeding specialist again today who still thinks she is improving, although slowly. Her drinking is certainly very promising. Hana is definitely more interested in playing with food, even if she is not putting it in her mouth. She is beginning to mimic us when we eat. It will come. I know the day will come when she is eating and drinking and the only reason we have the tube is for her meds. Now if only I could get her to take her meds orally!

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